As both recreational and medicinal marijuana use becomes more accepted in American society—a trend that’s definitely for the better—it’s also making something that isn’t so great more common: Very young kids getting high, usually by accident. Recently, a 9-year-old Albuquerque girl ate and shared her grandfather’s pot gummies with five classmates after mistaking them for regular candy. She went to the school nurse feeling sick and “very dizzy,” and teachers eventually sussed out what happened. This and other incidents made us wonder: Does pot make young children “high” in the same way it does adults?
First things first, yes, kids really can get stoned, though we don’t know much about how the especially young, like babies and toddlers, might experience marijuana.
“I don’t know if it’s the same way that adults do, but they do get high,” Dr. Eden Evins, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital, told me. “They feel out of control, they have disturbances in time, perception, that sort of thing.”
As you could probably guess, kids are lightweights. A single pot gummy would have stronger effects on a child than on an adult. But aside from their smaller bodies, there are several other reasons why marijuana is more potent in kids, both in the short- and long-term.
“THC (the psychoactive component of pot responsible for its mind-altering effects) gets taken up into fat cells—and there’s a lot of fat cells in the brain—where it gets sequestered [before interacting with the brain itself]. But younger kids have less fat cells in the brain, so there’s more of it working at once,” Evins said.
Of course, body size does play a big role. “Since it’s dose dependent (based on the weight and size that the drug ‘dissolves’ in), if a single gummy bear gets you nicely buzzed, it is going to knock your 8-year-old for a loop,” Dr. Mark Morocco, clinical professor of emergency medicine in the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, told me in an email. “Marijuana hits highest levels in brain tissue early on, and that’s where the biggest effects on children are seen—sleepiness, confusion, agitation, hallucinations.”
In the case of the Albuqueque girl, some of her classmates felt “giggly,” while she and others felt sick, nauseous, and dizzy (all eventually recovered with no further ill effects).
Anecdotally, Morocco said that children are more likely to get stressed out by their pot experience.
“Adult patients unfamiliar with being ‘high’ almost always come to the ER fearful they are having ‘a stroke,’ but what they mean is that they are frightened because their brain isn’t working the way they expect... They lose insight and freak out—‘a bad trip,’” he says. “If adults can’t deal, imagine the experience for kids who can’t begin to understand what is happening to them.”
But the worst concerns about kids and marijuana are related to longer-term use.
“What you see in children as they grow is that there’s a maturation of the brain that’s directed by cannabinoid receptors—from youth until about age 25. So that makes them much more vulnerable to negative effects of cannabinoids than adults,” said Evins. “I mean, adults can smoke too much and crash their car, that sort of thing. But children have an unique risk because of how marijuana can interfere with brain development.”
There’s a lot we don’t know about how pot affects brain development—thanks in part to federal prohibitions on research, Morocco says—but some evidence suggests that chronic marijuana use in the young can heighten the risk of schizophrenia and memory problems later on in life; they’re also more likely to become dependent on it.
“We don’t know enough, but what we do know should worry parents. It’s a very bad idea for children to be exposed to weed.” Evins said.
Already, as alluded to at the top, ER admissions for recreational marijuana are becoming more common in states that have legalized pot. But while most patients, kids and adults, don’t require hospitalization—just a few hours of observation to calm them down—there have been signs that an acute dose can, in rare cases, be incredibly dangerous.
Last year, a case study reported that a 11-month-old who developed a seizure and died from myocarditis—an inflamed heart—had high levels of THC in his system, prompting the doctors to speculate whether the pot may have contributed to his death. To be clearer than the initial headlines surrounding the report, the doctors weren’t saying the boy died of an marijuana overdose, which would have been the first documented death of its kind, just that the drug may have worsened his presumably fragile condition, based on research showing that it can affect the cardiovascular system. Less controversially, there have been documented rare cases of children falling into coma after taking too much pot.
These concerns are largely centered around recreational weed, not medicinal cannabis products, which often contain less or no THC, the cannabinoid that seems to be responsible for the most visibly negative effects on the brain. Evins noted, however, that kids absorb synthetic, cannabis-based drugs like dronabinol*, which helps tamp down nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy, more potently than adults do, too. There is ongoing research aimed at mapping out the long-term effects of medical cannabis on children.
Undoubtedly, all of these risks will become more understood as marijuana becomes more widely legalized.
“[W]e are entering into a big ‘experiment’ where we are all the subjects,” Morocco said. “I don’t expect there will be any great surprises, since cannabis has been around and used for a long, long time. But there is some risk, especially with a larger number of people using marijuana and the unavoidable combination with autos, guns, other drugs, and other people.”
Morocco‘s advice to parents of young children: “Keep all drugs, legal and otherwise, locked up and out of reach.”
Update 5:45 p.m. ET: A previous version of this article characterized dronabinol as THC-free. While there are cannabis-based products that do not contain THC, dronabinol is a synthetic THC preparation. We regret the error.